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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Last Outpost of Byzantium.

George Weigel writes about the protest of the monks of Mount Athos against the visit of Pope Benedict to Constantinople. I usually like his stuff, but this one, not so much.

I just don't see it. The Orthodox I have met in the flesh don't have a bug up their backside about Rome (one lovely woman gave me the Skete monastery icon of St. Thomas the Apostle which graces our living room). Plus, I never had any stomach for the "You're the schismatic!" "No, you're the schismatic" Catholic-Orthodox argument clinics on the internet, which in any event were limited to a fistful of energetic men with entirely too much free time.

The Orthodox who seem to have the most difficulty with Catholics are located in the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches, but it's hardly universal even there.

And it's doubtful that it applies in toto to the oft-irascible monks of Mount Athos. Yes, they are an old school bunch. How old school? For one, they fly the old Palaeologus double eagle, the last flag of Byzantium, albeit with different colors.


They also have an impressively long pedigree to boot. The Athonite monks got their start under the Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas, the "White Death of the Saracens" and a serious ascetic himself. Phokas was a good friend of Athanasios, the founder of the first monastery on the mountain, and the Emperor issued the first charter in the 960s, which was confirmed by his successor, the even-more-dangerous-to-Saracens John I Tzimiskes around 973. There have been monks there ever since, even during the Turkish rule over the area. The complex below is the Great Lavra, the first monastery on Athos (the red building is the katholikon built by Athanasios in 963):


When you throw in the migraine-inducing disputes over Hesychasm, you realize that Athos is a different world indeed.

But it is no monolith today. While Athos has been a pillar of anti-Roman sentiment (sometimes quite deserved, see And All That, 1204), the fact is that the most intractable among them are out of step with the majority, who are loyal to the ecumenically-minded Patriarch Bartholomew, and the confrontations between the two groups have been ugly. In short, when Athos isn't a united bloc, I'm not sure what's left of Weigel's argument.

Yes, there's long way to go before reunion is feasible, but sitting around sighing about the bad Orthodox hating us doesn't serve much purpose.

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